Al Jazeera America: Only 'Lovers' Left Alive

February 13, 2016

 Morb Heang and Nou Sout pose on the day they renewed their vows. (Credit: Hannah Reyes)

Morb Heang and Nou Sout pose on the day they renewed their vows. (Credit: Hannah Reyes)

By Dene-Hern Chen with contributions from Chan Phalkun
All photos by Hannah Reyes

ROLEA B'AIER, Cambodia – It was Yim Ran’s wedding day, and she could not stop weeping. Dressed in jet-black clothing and plucked from her work in the rice fields, she stood next to her husband-to-be, a man she had just met.

“I just felt fear. I didn’t love my husband at all,” she recalled. “During that period, I was just starving all the time, so I didn’t have any feelings for him or any men or anyone.”

Held in April 1978, Ran’s wedding came three years after Pol Pot’s troops swept through Phnom Penh to establish the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge government. Promising a utopian society by returning Cambodia to its agrarian roots, Angkar — a term that referred to the Khmer Rouge leadership — morphed quickly into a nebulous catchall that instilled fear in those punished, tortured and killed for any behavior deemed to be against the regime.

“I was afraid that if I didn’t follow what Angkar said, I would be killed,” Ran, now 58, said.

She recalled there having been two other couples in the same wedding ceremony, along with a number of young Khmer Rouge cadres holding guns. Like the regime’s ideology, the event’s setting was austere — Ran remembers only wildflowers on a table — and the ceremony straightforward. The couples were not marrying each other out of love or kinship, but were coming together to vow allegiance to Angkar.

“I started to cry because I felt so much regret for my young life,” she said. “I’d seen my relatives marry people who they loved and yet here I was, marrying a man I didn’t know.”

Almost four decades later, that anguish remains fresh. Yet on Jan. 29, she chose to renew her vows with Sok Hort, the stranger she once feared.

In a traditional wedding ceremony paid for by Youth for Peace, a local nongovernmental organization that focuses on education and conflict resolution, Ran and Hort — along with six other couples whose unions were coerced during the regime — got the chance to experience the traditional marriage rituals they’d missed out on.

“It’s important for us because in our whole life, this will be the real ceremony and we would be able to show our children that we are actually married now,” Ran said the day before the nuptials. “Now that my husband and I know each other, we will be marrying out of love.”

 As they get ready for the remarriage ceremony, some of the brides sit in front of a mural illustrating war crimes carried out by the Khmer Rouge. 

As they get ready for the remarriage ceremony, some of the brides sit in front of a mural illustrating war crimes carried out by the Khmer Rouge. 

 Yim Ran (right) and Sok Hort join in the fruit parade that traditionally accompanies a Cambodian wedding. 

Yim Ran (right) and Sok Hort join in the fruit parade that traditionally accompanies a Cambodian wedding. 

 Kae Khan and Ly Lay Eun embrace amidst friends and family after the remarriage ceremony. 

Kae Khan and Ly Lay Eun embrace amidst friends and family after the remarriage ceremony. 

Theirs is a happy story, but it is not a common one. Researchers estimate that roughly 250,000 women were forced to marry during the Khmer Rouge’s brief but devastating regime. In the U.N.-backed tribunal being held in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge’s two surviving leaders are on trial for enacting policies considered to be crimes against humanity; the issue of forced marriage has been included in the trial’s scope.

Due to the sensitivity of the topic, researchers are only now beginning to study the long-term societal and psychological consequences of these marriages. Among those who chose to stay together after the regime’s fall in 1979, many have suffered spousal abuse and mental trauma. Even happily married pairs are sometimes ostracized because the ceremonies performed during that period, a dramatic departure from typical Cambodian weddings, are seen as inauspicious.

Read the full story, which includes individual profiles for two couples, at Al Jazeera America